Today I woke to more news of horror. So close to home – just across the Pennines, a city where I’ve worked, where I have friends, a city whose history and culture I have studied for years now. And as I saw the first reports I wept, for the children who have been murdered and hurt and terrified, for the parents who are still desperately waiting to find out what has happened to their kids, or who are lost in unimaginable grief. My heart hurts.
Manchester is resilient. It has had to be. We all have to be in this dangerous world, if we’re to hold on to what really matters, if we’re to love and hope and laugh, if we’re to bring children into this world and bring them up to love and hope and laugh.
Whilst the usual suspects have been swift to inject their poison into social media, to encourage hate and violence in response to hate and violence, many more are trying to do the opposite.
Always after attacks like these some rush to help and some rush to hate. The helpers try to contain the blast, the haters help to spread it.
Ian Dunt, on the politics.co.uk website:
Our response will be to try to contain the blast, by showing that the overwhelming majority of people remain kind, decent, and big-hearted. This is not a platitude. It is a political response.
But of course we feel anger. Of course we feel scared. Of course we feel loathing for the person who hated life so much that he could go into an arena full of happy, excited kids and commit mass murder.
The point is, what do we do?
If we let that anger be channeled into hostility to anyone other than the perpetrator and whichever group he claims to represent, they win.
If we let fear prevent us from living our lives to the full, or push us to allow our freedoms and the freedoms of others to be curtailed, they win.
Terrorists, of whatever political or religious persuasion, want to provoke fear and anger. As the UN defines terrorism, it is ‘intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act’.
In other words, whatever anger and fear we feel, however desperately sad we feel, we must not be compelled by their actions to do anything that is not in itself just, fair and right, nor to abstain from doing what is in itself just, fair and right.
When we (those of us who argue in this way, as well as expressing our solidarity via social media with the victims) are berated for just waiting for the next atrocity, I wonder what it is that we (or our governments) should be doing instead. What form should our rage take, that could make us and our children safer?
The voices of hate were quick to speak up, as always. They claim to be fuelled by righteous anger, but in their words there’s a hideous kind of glee. They call for action, but what they have in mind is closing the borders, or worse. The responses which would, of course, be exactly what the terrorists hope for, and would make us less rather than more safe.
I do understand that changing one’s profile pic, claiming that ‘je suis wherever’, and all that, seems useless and inadequate. Of course those things in themselves do not change the situation. They’re easy to ridicule and dismiss. But as Stig Abell says:
It is easy to dismiss the commonplaces, the impossibility in using words to deplore the lack of words. But the very fact of reaching for words – of trying to talk about it – is an appropriate response. And, at moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection. Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another. It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void. It does not matter that there is unresolved tragedy in a violent world that makes consolation a commonplace.
Because by using cliché, we are trying to employ common currency, we are grasping for tokens – however smoothed by over-use – that we all recognise, we all can handle and share. We are using language to be inclusive. …
So we should abandon any knee-jerk response … to hashtags and platitudes, to prayers and placards. There are always words, even over-familiar and trite ones. And they tell us something about our desire to connect and collect ourselves, to take the time to try at least to “think of the victims and the families”. That desire is a good thing. Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.
So I refuse to be embarrassed about the inadequacy of my own words. I believe that however feeble they are in the immediate aftermath of something which hurts my heart as much as this does, I can and must keep saying what I believe.
Daesh divide the world into Crusaders (that this definition includes pre-teen girls at a pop concert tells you all you need to know) and the Caliphate. George Bush used similar rhetoric after 9/11, telling us that we were either with the US or with the terrorists. I’m not proposing any equivalence of those two approaches, other than that this polarisation, this reduction of the complexity and diversity of life into two opposing absolutes, has done and continues to do immeasurable harm.
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Jonathan Freedland wrote about Daesh’s onslaught against the ‘grey zone‘ :
The grey zone is where I want to live. Islamic State hates it, that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both. Those who have studied the organisation tell us “the grey zone” – Isis’s phrase – is high on the would-be warriors’ to-eradicate list, along with all those other aspects of our world that so terrify them: women, statues of the past, the pleasures of the present.
Specifically, the grey zone refers to the sphere of coexistence where Muslim and non-Muslim might live together. That’s anathema to the frightened young men of Isis, who yearn for a world divided on binary lines, with room for only two categories – them and the infidel. Such a world would be as clean and neat as computer code, with Isis the ones and the rest of us reduced to zeros.
I made my own contribution on this blog. Looking back now, I am not certain that my interpretation of the grey zone was correct. It may be that it should properly be defined as the place inhabited by Muslims who have not signed up for the caliphate and for jihad. For Daesh it is a state of hypocrisy, and their hatred of it explains why the vast majority of their victims are Muslims – the wrong sort of Muslims. So whilst their murderous attacks in Kabul, Baghdad, Ankara and so many other locations are attacks on the grey zone, Paris and Manchester, Brussels and Nice, were attacks on the Crusaders.
But we don’t have to accept any of their twisted, hateful definitions. The grey zone for me is where people of all faiths and none meet, talk, share music and food and laughter. It’s where in the wake of tragedy people of all faiths and none offer whatever they can – a free taxi ride, somewhere to stay, a blood donation. We must defend it.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.